Rector bans wearing protest gown

Rector magnificus Jacquelien Scherpen has prohibited the wearing of a ‘toma’, the gown designed as a protest against hierarchical relationships surrounding the right to award doctorates. Those who came up with the idea for the gown are annoyed.

Originally, Angeliek van Hout says, she wanted to wear a pink dress and white boots during the doctoral ceremony for her PhD student Elizabeth Heredia Murillo on October 19. She had intended to protest the fact that members of the dissertation committee who are not professors are not allowed to wear gowns. ‘The situation reflects a hierarchy that is no longer in line with contemporary times’, she believes.

‘I am an associate professor with ius promovendi‘, says Van Hout – the right to award doctorates. ‘And I was the primary promoter, so I could have worn a borrowed gown. But I wanted to protest. Perhaps the dress code once reflected the actual relationships, but that has not been the case in the fifteen years that I have supervised PhD candidates.’

But then she heard about the ‘toma’ – ‘tunic for overlooked mid-level academics’ – the unofficial gown that the university council’s personnel and science factions had introduced in September. It was specifically designed to protest the limited right to award doctorates and the accompanying right to wear a gown.


She contacted the initiators, consulted with her PhD student, the director of her research institute, and the chairman of the ceremony, as well as the other members of the dissertation committee. No one had a problem with her wearing the toma. ‘The international members of the committee were truly shocked that this was the practice in the Netherlands’, she says.

But when she took her place at the front of the line to walk from the faculty room to the auditorium under the guidance of the beadle, she was stopped by the beadle. ‘She said that the rector had banned the wearing of the toma because it went against the doctoral protocol.’

Van Hout had no choice but to quickly remove the protest gown and then enter the auditorium dressed in the pink dress and white boots.

Dress code

Rector magnificus Scherpen is clear about her position. ‘People can wear the toma wherever they want, but not at official ceremonies’, she said last week in response to questions from the personnel faction about the incident.

A committee has been set up to consider whether non-professor members of the dissertation committee may also wear gowns, Scherpen said. In the meanwhile, ‘we have a fixed dress code’.

But the toma was precisely designed with the dress code in mind, argues university council member Janet Fuller. They stipulate that women must wear ‘appropriate clothing’ and men a ‘dark suit, white shirt, and appropriate tie’. Both sexes must wear black shoes. ‘So it should be allowed.’

Meaningful conversations

Moreover, the initiators always emphasise that people should coordinate the wearing of the toma with others involved, such as the chairman of the committee and especially the doctoral candidate. ‘The candidates should not be surprised. Such a day is already stressful enough’, says university council member Jessica de Bloom.

So far, there have been five occasions when someone wanted to wear the toma, she says, but it has not made it to the auditorium even once. ‘But it has led to meaningful conversations each time.’


De Bloom herself, who as a professor has the right to wear a gown, wanted to make a statement by not doing so during a doctoral ceremony in October. She changed her mind after a conversation with her dean. ‘It was a positive conversation, during which he indicated that discussions were ongoing about the right to award doctorates and wearing gowns. I then decided not to do it’, she says. ‘With the idea: okay, we have set things in motion and are waiting.’

But when she heard about Scherpen’s ban, she began to doubt whether she should have persisted. ‘I find this really quite objectionable. The university is, par excellence, a place for criticism. The toma has deliberately been kept sober, and I think someone outside the academic community wouldn’t even notice it. It is truly a statement to the academic community.’


Fuller agrees. ‘As someone with a background in anthropology, I have a great appreciation for ritual, and also a good understanding of its role in society in maintaining social order. In this case, this doctoral ritual serves to maintain a hierarchy which we would like to protest, thus the toma was designed to be worn there.’

Van Hout believes that she still made her statement. But she finds the rector’s proposal to protest outside the auditorium ‘absurd’. ‘It’s precisely about that ceremony and the tradition, so that’s the only place where wearing the toma makes sense.’

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